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Reveille United Methodist Church
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So far in our “Summer of Forgiveness” sermon series, we have discussed the spiritual, psychological, and physical effects of forgiving someone who has harmed us. In the second sermon, I discussed the mandate to forgive that Jesus issues where he compares what God forgives us for to an enormous debt, and how what we must forgive one another for is a much smaller debt. Both of these sermons were rooted in verses from Matthew chapter eighteen.
So to recap, forgiveness is good for us, which is important, since as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are required to do it, required to forgive.
However, as we all know, things are not as simple as this. Sin exists on a spectrum, with some sins being much, much easier for us to forgive than others. This is especially true when we consider the effects of sin. Steal from me, for example, and you can repent and give back what you took.
Yet some sins, many sins, have painful, lasting, if not permanent consequences for us. What about those things? How can we forgive the seemingly unforgivable?
I believe that it is here that we run into one of the limitations of the New Testament, and why ultimately the Bible cannot be used as a simple manual for life. In the gospels, Jesus is very, very clear that our forgiveness of others trespasses against us is not optional, and that there are cosmic and eternal consequences if we do not forgive. However, Jesus says little about the mechanics of forgiveness, leaving a good deal of that up to us, and it is this theological problem that I would like to address today.
Many years ago, in another congregation, I was teaching a Bible study on the topic of forgiveness when I had an encounter that brought this issue into stark relief. After class one day, a participant told me what had happened to her child, and how, as her mother, she was struggling to deal with it, especially in light of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. The incident she described was too terrible for me to share with you, but I can tell you it was one of the worst things I have ever encountered in ministry, second only to the time I presided at a funeral for a murder victim.
This mother felt trapped, trapped between what the gospel requires, the actual words of the Lord she professed to follow, and what she knew about herself, about what had been done, and her very honest, very real feelings towards the offending party.
Looking back, it was as if the scriptures almost favored the perpetrator, leaving the victims to be continually re-victimized by their understanding of the Lord’s teachings that they could not follow with integrity, one of those times when religion seems more like the sickness than the cure.
In this morning’s text, we certainly find Jesus offering what are perhaps two of his most significant and moving examples of forgiveness in his life in ministry. In our last two sermons from Matthew 18, Jesus commands forgiveness. In today’s reading, he lives those teachings. First, we encounter Jesus hanging on the cross, using his limited breath to pray to God for forgiveness for the men who had just put him there. In this verse, like a good advocate, defends them, pleading their case on their behalf: “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Then, as he he continues to hang upon the cross, Jesus offers forgiveness to one of the men crucified alongside him, a man who confesses no sin, who makes no reparations, who only acknowledges Jesus’ kingdom, and asks Jesus to remember him upon entering it.
Even the most pious among us has to admit that today’s reading presents a very, very high bar for forgiveness. It is one of those passages of scripture where the temptation for the preacher is to simply say to the congregation “As Jesus forgave, so let us go into the world and offer forgiveness in his name.”
But really, come on. Who among us can truly forgive like this? How many petty grievances are we carrying around in our hearts and minds today, or how many truly terrible things have been done to us that we do not even begin to know how to forgive? How many things have we given up on trying to forgive? How many things seem too great or too dangerous to forgive?
And how many times do we live in that painful limbo between what scripture commands and what we cannot truthfully let go of, so that we find ourselves feeling like we have one foot on the dock and one foot on an unmoored boat that is slowly drifting away?
As I alluded earlier, if we ever find ourselves reading scripture in such a way that it causes people to be victimized or re-victimized, we are reading scripture incorrectly. It is crucial for us to always keep in mind as we ponder the words of the Bible, we do so always remembering that Jesus Christ is God’s word incarnate, that is, God’s word made flesh. As such, we must read the whole of scripture as in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which as I said last Sunday, reveals to us a merciful and pardoning God, a God ever more ready than to forgive than we are to be forgiven.
All of which brings me back to the young mother, trying to live as a disciple of Jesus in the wake of unspeakable acts perpetrated upon her child. I will tell you today what I told her, all those years ago:
What if we have made a mistake, an easy mistake to make, by regarding forgiveness as a choice between two binary states, one or zero, on or off, black or white, forgiven or unforgiven, with no middle ground in between?
What if there was another way for us to regard forgiveness that honors the great importance of it while also acknowledging our human frailty and our human limitations, and the truly terrible ways in which we can harm one another?
What if forgiveness was not a choice between two binary states, and instead existed on a spectrum? What then?
Let’s say that, on one end of the spectrum was the worst, most human thing: the offender suffers and then is dead and buried. Now, let’s say that all the way on the other end of the spectrum is forgiving the way in which Jesus forgives. Hold that image in your mind for a second.
If you are anything like me, what you are imagining is a pretty wide spectrum. It can be a long, long walk between pure, hateful vengeance and the kind of redemption that we have come to expect from Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the distance can seem so great that it seems to be light years away, much too far for us to ever traverse in this lifetime.
Yet if we have agreed to consider forgiveness to be non-binary, then we do not have to cross that entire expanse all at once. We can simply take one step in the right direction; one step, and then dwell in that new, different, fresh space for awhile. And I believe that when we do, even the angels rejoice, for we have, at that moment, like the prodigal son, “come unto ourselves” and begun that long and often difficult journey home.
I do not believe that it is fair or even possible for someone else to tell us what that one step looks like. Instead, I believe that we have to figure it out in partnership with God. Perhaps your one step is agreeing that you are not going to allow your mind to entertain thoughts of this person for one day. Perhaps your one step is agreeing that, even if you cannot wish the offender well, you can stop wishing the offender harm. Perhaps your one step is covenanting to not allow the offender to cultivate anger in your heart, and so on.
Enough single steps, and before you know it, you may find yourself further down the road than you ever thought you could be, with your heart, mind, and spirit better for it.
After World War II, Dutch Christian Holocaust resister Corrie Ten Boom made a ministry of traveling to churches around Germany and preaching messages of God’s forgiveness to perhaps the most hated people in the world at that time. Corrie Ten Boom had been a prisoner in the Ravensbruk concentration camp, and her sister had died there. After the war, one night, after one of her talks, a man approached her and extended his hand. She recognized him: he had been one of the cruelest guards at Ravensbruk, and now he stood before her, a converted man, hand extended, asking her forgiveness.
In her autobiography The Hiding Place, she says that in that moment, she prayed to God, saying in her heart that all she could do in that moment was to extend her hand and take his, but that God would have to supply the feelings. In her telling of the story, God did, and she was able to forgive him that night.
I tell that story not to say that God requires or that we should expect that kind of instant transformation of our hearts. Not at all. I tell that story because I believe that a mistake that it is too easy to make when it comes to forgiveness is the belief that God is too removed from it, that God is purely the judge of our forgiveness or un-forgiveness and not the source of it, not the one who walks that long continuum with us, who supports us in all that emotional and spiritual labor, who cheers us on, and who suffers each and every painful setback, large and small, and who does do alongside us.
When I was young and in seminary at Duke, I was blessed to have an opportunity to study theology under an old saint named Dr. Thomas Langford. Dr. Langford was so wise, and he often used to lecture with his eyes closed, and we used to joke that he did so because inside his eyelids was God’s teleprompter; that all he said came from on high.
One morning, he was discussing forgiveness, and he told the story of a woman who went to her priest and confessed, “I have tried, and I have tried, and I just cannot truthfully forgive my husband for the things he has done to me.”
The priest thought for a second, and he said to her “God can forgive your inability to forgive.”
I have been practicing pastoral care in one way or another since 1996, and it has convinced me of this: give me honest struggle, give me honest doubt, give me honest anger and honest fear over false piety any day of the week. I get it, but most importantly, God gets it. One of the most difficult things I have to do on a fairly regular basis is to pray one of our prayers from early in our funeral liturgy, wherein the pastor prays to God on behalf of the grieving “You know our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking.” But there you have it. We are called into a life of forgiveness by the God who gets it, the God for whom our pain and trials are so very, very real.
This is the God we find hanging on the cross, the God who blesses the ones still holding the hammers, looking up at him, wondering how he could have been so foolish, wondering why he did it at all.
I do not pretend to know an easy method for forgiving the unforgivable, or really, how to do it completely. All I know is how not to do it: alone, alone and without God, and without God’s people found in that ragtag group of sojourners he calls his church. Each of us, one life at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time, one space along the continuum at a time, one little act of forgiveness at a time. It is how we help make God’s kingdom known in our midst, as along the way, even the angels rejoice.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.